BY Anna Cummins on 13 Mar 2023

Over 6,000 entries were whittled down to find the winners of this annual marine photography competition

'Hopeless' ©Alvaro Herrero Lopez-Beltran/UPY2023

‘Hopeless’: Alvaro Herrero Lopez-Beltran/UPY2023

An eye-catching photo of a pink river dolphin breaching the surface of the Amazon river has seen Kat Zhou from the United States named Underwater Photographer of the Year 2023. Zhou’s photograph triumphed over 6,000 pictures entered by underwater photographers from 72 countries.

Zhou’s photo ‘Boto Encantado’ frames this endangered species, whose numbers are falling year on year, by photographing it simultaneously above and below the surface, at sunset.

“There’s a legend among locals that river dolphins, or ‘botos’, can transform into handsome men known as ‘boto encantado’ to seduce women,” says Zhou. “Though I did not witness the transformation, I was enchanted by these beautiful mammals in a different way. After seeing how botos would sometimes bring their beaks above water, I wanted a split shot at sunset. Though the water was so dark that I was shooting blind, this dolphin gave me a perfect pose and smile!”

Image credit: ‘Boto Encantado’ ©Kat Zhou/UPY2023

‘Boto Encantado’: Kat Zhou/UPY2023

READ: Winners of Underwater Photographer of the Year 2022 revealed

“As more people have settled the Amazon, river dolphins began living in closer proximity to human populations,” adds Zhou. “Many river dolphins have been killed for use as fish bait, drowned in gill nets or poisoned by mercury pollution from mining. I fear that one day, botos will truly become no more than mythical creatures.”

Chair of the competition judges for Underwater Photographer of the Year 2023, Alex Mustard, says: “At first glance simple, then simply perfect. In dark, tannic waters, Kat has created a striking composition capturing this rarely photographed and endangered species in a precision composition. This is by far the best image we’ve ever seen of this species, whose numbers are declining at an alarming rate and whose IUCN’s Red List status was worryingly uprated to Endangered in 2019.

Bryant Turffs UPY2023

‘Chew With Your Mouth Closed!’: Bryant Turffs/UPY2023

“It is appropriate that the Amazon, as the world’s mightiest river, has produced our overall winner. The Underwater Photographer of the Year contest aims to celebrate underwater photography in all its diversity. We are delighted that this year’s awarded images come from the poles to the tropics, from all corners of the ocean, and from renowned freshwater bodies like the river Amazon and Lake Baikal. Being more than a nature contest, we even have winners taken in swimming pools.”

The Underwater Photographer of the Year contest is based in the UK, and Ollie Clarke, an Englishman now living in Australia, was named British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2023 for his image ‘The Swarm,’ showing a whale shark, the largest fish in the world, hidden within a bait ball of smaller fish. Clarke photographed this scene in Ningaloo, Western Australia. “Whale sharks on the Ningaloo Reef are often accompanied by small groups of fish,” said Clarke. “The fish use the giant shark as a floating shelter. However, this bait ball was huge with a lot more fish than usual and much denser, so I was really excited to photograph it.”

‘The Swarm’ ©Oliver Clarke/UPY2023

‘The Swarm’: Oliver Clarke/UPY2023

Mustard says: “Whale sharks are sometimes mislabeled as plankton feeders, but they are also active predators of schools of small fish. To me, Ollie’s stunning image is perfectly timed as the shark pounces, switching from benign escort to hunter, mouth gulping down its prey.”

In the same contest, Spanish photographer Alvaro Herrero was named ‘Save Our Seas Foundation’ Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year 2023, with his photo ‘Hopeless’ taken in Mexico. Herrero’s photograph shows a humpback whale dying of starvation because it is unable to swim properly after its tail has been broken from being entangled in ropes and buoys.

©Simon Lorenz/UPY2023

‘Death trap’: Simon Lorenz/UPY2023

“Taking this photograph was the saddest moment I’ve experienced in the ocean,” said Herrero. “Especially because I have spent so much time with humpbacks underwater, experiencing eye contact, interactions, and seeing how the whales are such intelligent and sentient beings. The photo is a reflection of how our oceans are suffering, the product of man’s selfishness and lack of responsibility. But I am, at least, happy that I could capture this moment and can now share it with the world and hopefully drive some real changes.”

“What a message this image delivers,” says competition judge Tobias Friedrich. “I can’t imagine the sadness when this poor whale was discovered, but by making a few images, Alvaro will help raise awareness and should save many whales in the future.”

©Rafael Fernandez Caballero/UPY2023

‘Curiosity among icebergs’: Rafael Fernandez Caballero/UPY2023

Dr James Lea, CEO of the Save Our Seas Foundation, adds: “Images have a profound capacity to affect how people view the world, and at SOSF, we are all about encouraging positive change in how people view and interact with the marine environment.”